This is a re-posting of an article which appeared May 19, 2016 in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
Violent words lead to violent actions
On May 22, 1856, Charles Sumner was beaten unconscious because of what he believed. Sumner was repeatedly struck with a metal-topped cane while his attacker’s accomplice stood with a pistol, threatening any onlookers that would intervene. Even after Sumner was unconscious, his attacker continued to beat him with the cane until it broke.
Charles Sumner was a U.S. Senator, and he was assaulted in the United States Capitol Building.
He was attacked because he gave a speech denouncing slavery. The head wounds Sumner sustained prevented him from returning to work for years, but his attacker, Preston Brooks, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, walked out of the room undetained and became a hero to the South.
This brutal incident revealed deep chasms in our nation. Five years later the United States was upended by civil war.
It is seldom that we see actual violence in the political arena, but when we do, it is deeply troubling. Last week, a Democratic candidate for state Senate was brutally beaten unconscious with brass knuckles — two days before the West Virginia primary.
Richard Ojeda believes this attack was politically motivated, as he had criticized local politicians, including the uncle of the man accused of attacking him. Ojeda also reports that he has received threatening phone calls during the weeks leading up to the primary, including death threats.
While the attacks on Sumner and Ojeda were certainly under different circumstances, when violence creeps into our political arena, it is a portent of troubles to come no matter what. We are lucky that Mr. Ojeda’s brutal attack is an isolated incident, that this is not a trend that has found the national stage.
But violence is not the only type of incivility: Words matter.
Disagreements are normal. We live in a complicated nation full of different peoples with different backgrounds and ideas. Arguments are the blessing and curse of living in a pluralistic society: We argue to find the best ideas to lead our country through the centuries. Civil arguments have gotten us through the darkest, most trying times for our nation.
But in the heat of an argument it’s easy to forget the other party is a person just like you, with thoughts and feelings of their own. No matter how wrong you think they are, they have a right to their ideas, their voice. Mutual respect is fundamental to all human interactions, but each biting attack, each hurled insult erodes that respect, making it easier to cross the line and throw that first punch. We can’t solve all our differences in bar fights.
However, the language of violence and incivility has already found its way into our national stage. This is shaping up to be one of the most uncivil elections in recent memory, and voters agree. A recent poll shows that two in three voters say the 2016 election has been less civil than other elections, and 60 percent believe this will go down in history as one of the most negative. It’s hard to disagree.
More than ever, politicians are ratcheting up language before this election, demonizing their opponents. It is easy to understand why: They want to win. But as citizens, we must expect more from our prospective leaders. To win our votes, they must represent what’s best about America, not hurl mud at their opponents. We must call on our candidates, our elected officials and our media to denounce acts of incivility — before the first punch is thrown.